The Pentagon's solution to criticism: blow up hostile media

The US considered the control of information -- from both friend and foe -- during the Iraq war to be as important as any specifically military strategy

By David Miller  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Tue, Jan 13, 2004 - Page 9

"Information dominance" came of age during the conflict in Iraq. It is a little discussed but highly significant part of the US government strategy of "full spectrum dominance," integrating propaganda and news media into the military command structure more fundamentally than ever before. In the past, propaganda involved managing the media. Information dominance, by contrast, sees little distinction between command and control systems, propaganda and journalism. They are all types of "weaponized information" to be deployed. As strategic expert Colonel Kenneth Allard noted, last year's attack on Iraq "will be remembered as a conflict in which information fully took its place as a weapon of war."

Nor is information dominance something dreamt up by the George W. Bush White House. It is a mainstream US military doctrine that is also embraced in the UK. According to US army intelligence there are already 15 information dominance centers in the US, Kuwait and Baghdad. Both the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Foreign and Commonwealth Office have staff assigned to "information operations."

In future conflicts, according to the MoD, "maintaining morale as well as information dominance will rank as important as physical protection."

Achieving information dominance according to American military experts, involves two components: first, "building up and protecting friendly information; and degrading information received by your adversary."

Seen in this context, embedding journalists in Iraq was a clear means of building up "friendly" information. A MoD commissioned commercial analysis of the print output produced by "embeds" shows that 90 percent of their reporting was either "positive or neutral."

The second component is "the ability to deny, degrade, destroy and/or effectively blind enemy capabilities."

"Unfriendly" information must be targeted. This is perhaps best illustrated by the attack on al-Jazeera's office in Kabul in 2001, which the Pentagon justified by claiming al-Qaeda activity in the al-Jazeera office. As it turned out, this referred to broadcast interviews with Taliban officials. The various attacks on al-Jazeera in Kabul, Basra and Baghdad should also be seen in this context.

The evidence is that targeting of independent media and critics of the US is widening. The Pentagon is reportedly coordinating an "information operations road map," drafted by the Information Operations Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to Captain Gerald Mauer, the road map notes that information operations would be directed against an "adversary." But when the paper got to the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy, it was changed to say that information operations would attempt to "disrupt, corrupt or usurp" adversarial decision-making. "In other words," notes retired US army Colonel Sam Gardiner, "we will even go after friends if they are against what we are doing or want to do."

In the UK, according to Major Nigel Smith of the 15 Psychological Operations Group, staffing is to be expanded and strategic information operations "will take on a new importance" as a result of Iraq. Targeting unfriendly information is central to the post-conflict phase of reconstruction, too. The collapse of distinctions between independent news media and psychological operations is striking.

The new TV service for Iraq was paid for by the Pentagon. In keeping with the philosophy of information dominance it was supplied, not by an independent news organization, but by a defense contractor, Scientific Applications International Corporation (SAIC). Its expertise in the area -- according to its Web site -- is in "information operations" and "information dominance."

The SAIC effort ran into trouble. The Iraqi exile journalists it employed for the Iraq Media Network (IMN) -- at a cost US$20 million over three months -- were too independent for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Within weeks, occupying authority chief Paul Bremer introduced controls on the IMN. He also closed down some Iraqi-run newspapers and radio and TV stations. According to Index on Censorship, IMN managers were told to drop the readings from the Koran, the vox-pops (usually critical of the US invasion) and even to run their content past the wife of a US-friendly Iraqi Kurdish leader for a pre-broadcast check. The station rejected the demands.

But this did not stop Bremer and further incidents culminated in a nine-point list of "prohibited activity" issued in June last year.

Bremer would reserve the power to advise the IMN on any aspect of its performance, including matters of content and the power to hire and fire staff. Thus, as Index on Censorship notes "the man in absolute authority over the country's largest, richest and best-equipped media network is also his own regulator and regulator of his rivals, with recourse to the US Army to enforce his rulings."

Attacks on al-Jazeera continue. In September last year the Iraq governing council voted to ban reports from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya on the grounds that they incite violence. As evidence of this, one member of the Iraqi National Congress who voted for the ban noted that the TV stations describe the opposition to the occupation as the resistance.

"They're not the resistance, they are thugs and criminals," he said.

But the Iraqi people appear not to share this view of al-Jazeera. Those with satellite access to al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are more likely to trust them over IMN. As the experience of IMN shows, achieving dominance is not always a straightforward matter. This is precisely why the strategy for "unfriendly information" is to "deny, degrade and destroy."

David Miller is editor of Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq